Igor Levit loves this word and he is fond of uttering it. Coming from his mouth, it doesn't sound like an academic kind of word, but almost like a melody.Incommensurable - Robert Schumann once used the word to refer to his fellow composer Johann Sebastian Bach. The word means something that cannot be measured with normal human standards. Though Schumann, who struggled to find the right words to describe the genius Bach, already had standards of his own that were nothing but exceptional.
Igor Levit has recorded the Partitas by this incommensurable Bach, BWV 825-830: it's the second release by the 27-year-old pianist, whom many regard as the greatest talent of his time. With his debut album, featuring the late Beethoven sonatas, Levit already enjoyed great success and international critical acclaim: the album rose to no. 46 in Germany's Top 100 album charts.
Levit now turns his attention to Bach: one great extremist after another. "It's simply amazing what Bach could do!" Levit exclaims. "He had a command of form second to none. Take the long slow movement of Partita no. 6: at the end it's not a sarabande any more, but a crazy, radical free fantasy – incredibly emotional, it stands no comparison. It really shakes you up. This is music of the utmost perfection!" Then Levit briefly hums the minuet from Partita no. 5, BWV 829, and says, "this is a humorous piece, not a minuet! And then suddenly it is one. And then it isn't." Playing a piece like this is… – Levit finds himself searching for the right word – well, it's "incommensurable. I love that word!"
Igor Levit has worked his way meticulously towards the famous Bach partitas. He read, studied and played music that came before Bach as he knew this way the only way to do it. While he was pursuing his research, he didn't play Bach at all. Then he spent three or four years on the partitas without performing them in concert until he felt he had finally mastered the scores and could do them justice. "And now" – thus Levit – "Bach comes pouring into me like a waterfall!"
In the intervening period since his first record appeared, the young pianist has become more laid-back, and that is immediately apparent from a comparison of the two albums. When he recorded the Beethoven sonatas, Levit seemed to be hurling all his strength at the keyboard, battling the elements. In the Bach partitas, a kind of relaxed distance can be felt, and a happy calm that makes it easy for the pianist to enjoy performing the music to the fullest. "For the first time in my life, I have the feeling that the way I play now is just right for me," he says. "Everything comes together, inwardly and programmatically. I can see light at the end of the tunnel, and that's where I want to go. Since then, I've felt immensely relaxed. It's true that I had to struggle with every note from the Bach just like with Beethoven – but this time I enjoyed the struggle. For me, playing the partitas was a wonderful kind of…" – and once again Levit is looking for the right word: "Well", he exclaims, "there was no alternative." Laughing, he adds: "Bach is the greatest possible love!"